Demo Driver 8: Sleeping Dogs (#109)
There are some genres that I’m inclined to be a little more harsh toward than others, and then there are genres where I’m more likely to be happy a game exists at all. Case in point: free-roaming destructive sandboxes a la Grand Theft Auto, which is a genre we really need better terminology for but one which you can instantly recognize. You’re walking around, you can hop in vehicles, for some reason there are remarkably light penalties for randomly belting someone on a busy street. You know the sort.
So I was predisposed to like Sleeping Dogs even before sitting down and playing it. The demo, unfortunately, only scratches the surface of what the game has to offer, which makes a certain amount of sense; loading the entirety of a digital Hong Kong into the game would probably be a bit too much. But what was there was pretty great even aside from that, and if the rest of the game is like what the demo has on offer, it now has my distinct attention.
At their heart, good games of this style want to be something specific. Saints Row wants to be a celebration of the loud, over-the-top crap you can get away with in a video game. The Godfather wanted to be a companion piece to the film, an almost melancholy look at how much the mafia costs you while at the same time showing how seductive it can really be. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was an interactive hood movie, a full-featured tragedy taking place on a thinly-veiled version of Compton.
Sleeping Dogs, meanwhile, is an undercover cop drama. You probably know the sort – you’ve got a cop going into deep cover, working with gangsters, trying to remain a good person when he sees the vile behavior of his superiors and gets increasingly close to his targets. Which makes sense; the game was originally going to be a part of the True Crime series, which brings to mind certain connotations despite having about as much connection to true crime as an animated cat has to a real tiger. So you take control of Wei Shen and start working your way through the Triads in Hong Kong, trying to take down the heart of the criminal empire while slowly losing sight of the difference between yourself, your bosses, and the people you’re infiltrating.
Realistic? Hell no. But entertaining, and the sort of setting that really wants to have some over-the-top fun with the concept. Fortunately, from the missions that the demo is showing off, the game is more than willing to enjoy itself with this premise, although it only shows off the combat. Which is a shame; I would have loved to see how the driving handled, but alas.
Melee combat is what you spend most of your time doing in the demo, and it’s reminiscent of nothing so much as a pared-down version of the combat in Arkham Asylum and points related. Left-clicking unleashes a quick strike, while holding the mouse button down produces a heavy blow. Right-clicking counters an incoming attack. You can also grapple enemies, flinging them into environmental obstacles, using them as human shields, or even just holding them with your arms whilst you knee them in the gut repeatedly.
Rather than using a straight regenerating health system, the game has a kind of clever implementation – taking out enemies and doing so with style ups your Face meter, which pops in some health regeneration once it’s full. The result is that if you make a couple of mistakes and take a hit, but then get back on your game, you can recover from your misstep, but simply trying to brute-force and ignore the combat system will drop you even if you try to run off and hide. It’s a good balance, by and large. And the slightly looser system means that the combat feels very satisfying, dismantling groups of thugs in an economical and direct fashion.
Picking up a gun changes the nature of the combat, naturally; rather than just having crosshairs up to shoot, you have to press a button to start aiming. This might seem prohibitive, but the game uses it to let you pull off some nifty stunts, like firing away while vaulting cover. Aside from muscle memory taking over in a few scenes wherein I tried to use Mass Effect‘s controls to take cover, the gunplay is satisfying. I was also oddly pleased by the fact that the enemies are a bit more resilient against a handgun than is the norm for games of this type; goons do not go down in a couple of shots, which feels real-ish even in a game that’s blatantly unrealistic.
To cage from Stephen Colbert, it’s realiness, something that isn’t realistic but is meant to feel more realistic despite the fact that reality is a fairly absolute state. Yes, realism doesn’t fit with slow-motion shooting sequences as you slide over cover, but the whole thing is designed in service to a style and a feel that bypasses the logical part of your brain altogether.
It’s filled with a lot of angry men with guns who use the word “fuck” as a stammer, it’s a set of runs through narrow back-alleys of Hong Kong, it’s kind of silly and takes pains to show the contrast between the grime and steam and sweat of the criminal element against the starched cleanliness of the police. A bit formula, a bit silly, but at the same time marvelously engaging.
If you’d be happier never seeing another game of this genre ever, this one will not change your mind; while I’m fond of the nuances like the combat, they’re just that, nuances. It’s not something revolutionary. But if you like this sort of game, I highly recommend taking the demo and potentially the game itself for a spin. The graphics aren’t as crisp as they could be, the controls are a bit on the clunky side, and it’s all relentlessly over the top in its own way, but it also manages to have a charming quality despite all of that.
Besides, the next Saints Row game isn’t due out until next year. You have to do something until then, right?